Crossing guards for grown-ups? Yes, NYC traffic is that bad
Elaine Vespermann waited on the corner for his lead.
Only when Preston Martin charged across six lanes of rush-hour traffic did she follow behind him. He waved at cars to keep them at bay. He watched over her until she reached the other side of the street.
After too many close calls, Vespermann, 38, a baby sitter, does not like to cross by herself anymore. “He helps, always,” she said. “It’s very hard every day. There are too many cars and the people are crazy sometimes.”
New York City’s increasingly frenetic streetscape has become a gantlet for pedestrians forced to traverse multiple traffic lanes, weave around blocked intersections and sidestep bicycles and scooters whizzing by – all before the light turns red. It is Martin’s job to make sure no one gets run over.
While school crossing guards have long shepherded children across the street, the city’s traffic has become so perilous that now even grown-ups need crossing guards. Officially known as pedestrian safety managers, they are vigilant escorts across some of the city’s busiest intersections.
They are not the traffic police; they cannot hand out tickets and their focus is not on keeping cars moving. Instead, they are bodyguards for pedestrians. As soon as the walk sign flashes, they are the first ones into the crosswalk. They shadow the elderly, the young and anyone needing extra time or care. They watch over everyone – especially those too distracted by texting or talking to watch out for themselves.
So far, they are a fixture in just one Manhattan neighborhood – Hudson Square, a fast-growing commercial hub that is about to become even more crowded with Google planning a $1 billion campus for up to 7,000 workers.
“The traffic is overwhelming,” said Doris Garcia, 44, a mother of four from Brooklyn who supervises the pedestrian safety managers in heat, rain and snow. “Pedestrians yell at drivers. If drivers don’t listen, sometimes we have to put our whole body in the intersection just to stop the cars.”
Across the city, 106 pedestrians were killed in crashes with motor vehicles last year and more than 10,700 other pedestrians were injured, according to traffic data.
The pedestrian managers stand guard over one of the city’s worst choke points: where Varick Street feeds into the Holland Tunnel. An average of 40,742 vehicles go through the tunnel every weekday to New Jersey and beyond, often backing up onto Varick.
Increasingly, this snaking tunnel traffic is competing with throngs of newcomers to Hudson Square. The neighborhood was once home to printing presses and other manufacturers, but has been reinvented as a thriving commercial area with more than 1,000 companies, many in technology, media and advertising. It has more than 50,000 workers and thousands of new residents following a 2013 city rezoning.
The stretch of Varick between Houston and Spring streets has become one of the most dangerous in Manhattan. Though there have been no deaths, 119 people – including 40 pedestrians and nine cyclists – were hurt in crashes from 2012 to 2016, the most recent year available.
Ellen Baer, president of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District, came up with the idea for pedestrian managers in 2011, after seeing traffic managers expertly move people around a construction site at the World Trade Center.
Preston Martin works as a pedestrian safety manager – a crossing guard for grown-ups – on Varick Street, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in New York. The Manhattan neighborhood has stationed the workers at crowded intersections. It costs $300,000 a year.